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Wine-labelling dispute uncorks serious problem with Canada-Israel trade deal

By Peter Larson      

What should the government do when a bilateral trade pact violates other aspects of Canadian policy or existing international commitments?

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency recently demanded that Ontario liquor stores stop selling wines made in the West Bank and labelled 'Product of Israel,' but reversed the decision less than 24 hours later. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Six months ago, David Kattenburg, a Jewish son of Holocaust survivors who opposes Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, launched a complaint against the Liquor Control Board of Ontario for selling wines made in the occupied Palestinian territories as a “Product of Israel.”

That complaint eventually led to a notice sent to the LCBO by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) demanding the discontinuation of the sales of the mislabelled products. The food inspection agency based itself on established Canadian policy noting that “The government of Canada does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the territories occupied in 1967….Wine products from those regions which are labelled as ‘Product of Israel’ are not acceptable.”

B’nai Brith Canada and other Israel lobby organizations were shocked. This step by the CFIA would put Canada in line with the European Union and other jurisdictions that already demand that West Bank products be specifically labelled as such. B’nai Brith protested that Canada’s free trade agreement with Israel from 1997 allows products from the occupied territories to be labelled “Product of Israel,” notwithstanding existing Canadian official policy that the West Bank is not part of Israel.

Faced with this legal argument, within 24 hours the inspection agency reversed its decision. “In our assessment, we did not fully consider the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA),” said a CFIA statement.

However, the CFIA’s flip-flop raises a difficult legal issue for the Canadian government about what to do when a bilateral trade agreement violates other aspects of Canadian policy or existing international commitments. Can a simple commercial agreement override those policies?

Canadian policy, cited by the CFIA and as shown on the Global Affairs Canada website, does not recognize permanent Israeli control over the occupied Palestinian territories.

Furthermore, Canada has signed on to both the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Statute of Rome, which consider the Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories to be illegal. In fact, Canada has incorporated the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Statute of Rome into Canadian domestic law. This means that by Canada’s own laws the Israeli settlements are illegal and a war crime. Does this mean that by selling any West Bank wine, however labelled, the LCBO is profiting from the proceeds of crime?

In addition to these immediate legal issues, the West Bank wine controversy foreshadows a looming international political challenge for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has already announced he wants Canada to be elected to the United Nations Security Council for a two-year term starting in 2021.

In a decision six months ago (UNSC resolution 2334) the UN Security Council called on all UN members to “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the state of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.” If Canada continues to recognize West Bank products as “Made in Israel,” Canada will be in direct violation of this resolution. Can Canada continue to ignore “binding” decisions of the UN Security Council and still reasonably hope to be elected to that prestigious body?

The embarrassing West Bank wine imbroglio, which B’nai Brith, the CFIA, and the Canadian government would like to present as a simple labelling mistake, has revealed a serious problem with the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement. It violates both our international agreements and our domestic laws, and could even hinder our hopes of being elected to the Security Council. Perhaps it is time to take a new look at the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement itself.

Peter Larson is chair of the Canada Talks Israel/Palestine Committee.

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